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Julia Course as Laura and Jonathan Tan as Jim in The Glass Menagerie at the Shaw Festival.

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  • Title: The Glass Menagerie
  • Written by: Tennessee Williams
  • Director: Laszlo Berczes
  • Actors: André Sills, Allegra Fulton, Julia Course and Jonathan Tan
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 12, 2019

rating

There’s a gorgeous little gem of a production of The Glass Menagerie on at the Shaw Festival, one polished hard enough to make Tennessee Williams’s 1944 memory play gleam anew, but also to allow you see right through it.

As you enter the studio theatre, Tom Wingfield (André Sills), the play’s narrator and stand-in for the playwright, is there greeting the audience and performing magic tricks.

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This initially seems a strange directorial choice on the part of visiting Hungarian director Laszlo Berczes.

After all, Tom, in his opening monologue, specifically tells the audience he is the opposite of a stage magician: “He gives you the illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

But, in fact, it is a welcome nudge right off the top for audiences to regard Tom as the unreliable narrator he is.

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The picture he paints of his youth in a claustrophobic St. Louis apartment with his mother, Amanda (Allegra Fulton), and sister, Laura (Julia Course), is thoroughly through his gaze.

And for all the empathy artfully exuded, The Glass Menagerie is nevertheless a male, slightly condescending look over the shoulder at the plight of a single mother and an unmarried young woman in the Great Depression.

Tom’s memory is warped by his own guilt at abandoning his family to pursue his dreams, but, equally, his performance of his memory is a masked attempt to absolve himself.

Sills is the first actor I’ve seen play Tom who made me see all the layers to this narrator figure, and made me entirely forget about Williams and his real-life family.

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His Tom - funny, angry, charming and selfish as his mother says he is - was a new character to me. I wasn’t entirely sure what secrets he was keeping from his family. This made the play mysterious in a way that perhaps it was to audiences in 1944, when Williams was an unknown rather than a great American playwright, and the gay subtext was hidden from many.

As a result, the hypocrisy of Tom is very clear. Here’s an artist looking back on the women in his family with a piercing honesty that borders on cruelty, but, at the same time as he’s puncturing every delusion of theirs, he refuses to even reveal what he was doing when he went out to the movies every night.

The heightened awareness that Tom is looking at Amanda and Laura Wingfield doesn’t prevent the women on stage from bringing these well-known characters fully to life, however.

Fulton’s portrait of Amanda is human to the core, avoiding any clichés of the faded Southern belle; her anxiety is almost more palpable than that of her “shy” daughter, who she tries to enroll in business school before focusing on marrying her off to a gentleman caller.

Her performance makes it seem strange that critics have for so long described Amanda as “deluded,” as she’s the only one looking for practical answers to real problems.

Course’s Laura, meanwhile, is given ample time to play with her collection of glass animals and for her vivid inner life to be glimpsed as she chatters to herself all around the tight quarters of Balazs Cziegler’s in-the-round set, a foot-high slice of an apartment that looks like an enlarged maze for mice. (Berczes’s production has a couple of cool tricks up its sleeve, but is noteworthy primarily for the way it allows time to pass, and the passing of it to be felt.)

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What we see is a young woman with a tremendous imagination, first and foremost, a very minor limp and a crippling anxiety disorder second. That the men in the play misdiagnose her in ways old-fashioned (“homegirl”) and new-fangled (“inferiority complex”) is clear as glass. In another time, she might be an artist as talented as her brother, but, in the time of the play, and the time the play premiered, only he is allowed to turn her pain into poetry.

The scene where Laura receives her gentleman caller (Jonathan Tan), perhaps the most emotionally effective in American drama, is as devastating as ever. There is a presentational element to Tan’s performance that shows how his character is trapped in a world as imaginary as that of Laura’s glass animals; he’s unaware his “public speaking” lessons aren’t actually helping him tap into his true self, but instead assimilate into an American ruling class that deludes itself it is meritocratic.

The final moments of the play, however, are even more of a gut punch due to a subtle tweak by Berczes: When Tom tells Laura to “blow out your candles,” he’s the one who blows them out, giving up on her anew, trapping her as much as anyone or anything else.

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